Hiroshima Castle Tower
Back in October, I was having trouble sleeping one night – I’d been reading about Tim Ferris-style escapades and could not help but wonder if my life was passing me by. So, I booked a 2-week round trip ticket to Japan for the holiday break.
I got back yesterday – what a trip. More than sightseeing or vacationing, I spent two weeks traveling. I was living out of a backpack and moving from city to city, making liberal use of ramen noodles, public washrooms and free wi-fi. Beyond getting my fill of soulsearching, I managed to see a large swath of the country that is Japan. I feel fairly confident I got a good slice of exposure to the people, the customs and the culture.
Below is a city-by-city breakdown of how I spent 2 weeks. Not counting gifts, the trip cost me, very roughly, $3,000 USD. A $1340 flight, about $1100 in cash for food, hostel payments, transportation and other activity-related fees, $550 for an unlimited travel rail pass.
I could have easily saved more money – by traveling with a group, or staying in one place for more than two nights. I’m happy to e-mail you any details or specifics – But honestly, this trip was not about stretching a dime – it was about exploring a country I’ve been daydreaming about for over a decade.
Tokyo (part 1) – December 26th-29th
No matter what you’ve seen, you cannot prepare for the sheer sensory overload that takes place when you step foot into Tokyo for the first time. It is a very crowded city – over 12.5 million people – that feels a lot bigger than NYC or any other American city I’ve seen. Yet the city is full of quiet corners that leap out at you with their stillness.
- The contrast between “old” and “new” is woven into the fabric of the city. Just when you think you’re in a part of old Tokyo, a skyscraper will appear out of nowhere. And in the middle of downtown, you will find a temple or small back alley of houses tucked away in obscurity.
- Tokyo is the most stylish city I have ever been to, rivaled only maybe by Singapore. Everyone is dressed to the nines, all the time – the business crowd is decked out in suits, the casual crowd is fashion-forward and accessorized to the hilt – everyone looks like they’ve stepped out of a clothing catalog.
Highlights: Getting my Japanese name (Nabé-san – it literally means “hot pot” after the dish we ate) over dinner with 3 Japanese guys I just met on my first night; The views from the 45th floor of the Tokyo government buildings; The shinkansen (high speed bullet train) ride out of the city, where I saw Mount Fuji and felt perfectly still while hurtling towards Kyoto at 125 mph.
Kyoto – December 29th- December 30th
Kyoto is old Japan. After leaving the vicinity of the train station, I found temple upon temple scattered through the city. Unfortunately, due to poor weather and a pressing schedule, I did not get to see nearly of this city’s sights as I would have preferred. There’s always next time, I guess…
- Because I went at the peak tourist season (the week between Christmas and New Year), I got to be a part of Japanese tourist crowds. Somehow, this felt more authentic than being part of an American tourist crowd – but my overall impressions were still more that Kyoto has developed into a tourist trap.
- That being said, I did my favorite gift shopping here. Unlike Osaka or Japan, which are filled with the made-in-china kitsch, Kyoto is stocked with genuine, handmade Japanese kitsch. The fresh sweets (doughnuts, pastries, bean buns, ice cream) and coffee also blew me away.
Highlights: The walking trail from Higashimaya (temples, shopping, lots of food stalls, and a host of awesome views over the city); The garden outside of the Sanjusangen-dō temple (1000 statues)
Osaka – December 30th-January 1st
I fell in love with the city of Osaka. After a day of feeling like a burnt out tourist in Kyoto, I spent a couple of days wandering around what was a genuine Japanese city. Osaka is a gritty, colorful working class city that has none of the frills of Tokyo, but plenty of the thrills of a big city: bustling nightlife, a seedy underbelly, neon lights galore.
- I was struck by the gruff but kind nature of the city’s denizens. They will not hesitate to throw you some attitude, but are just as helpful as their more respectful and/or robotic counterparts in other parts of Japan. Seeing real Japanese people – like the old man who laughed at and insulted me the whole time he walked me to the front gate of the guesthouse I stayed at – was a real treat.
- I happened to stay at an amazing guesthouse in an ‘off the beaten path’ section of Osaka, which I highly recommend to anybody. Sakura Peace House is run by a woman named Yumi. I got to meet some cool people who know the city well – and as any traveler knows, the people you meet on the road can have a big impact on your trip.
Highlights: Tooling around the back alleys of Osaka on a bike; meeting local Osakans (coffee shop owners, the guy who ran the hat shop, co-owners of a bar; Spending New Year’s at a genuine hippie bar that is definitely worth visiting for the atmosphere; the food, drinks and coffee in Osaka are amazing.
Kagoshima – January 1st- January 3rd
Kagoshima is a smaller province off the beaten tourist path. It’s near the southernmost point of Japan’s mainland region. While it’s supposed to be a tropical island, the palm trees were dampened by big clumps of snow on the ground. The whole reason I came here was to see Yakushima island, a tropical, mountainous and mystical island that contains sandy beaches, natural hot springs, and cedarwood forests that are 3,000 years old. Once I heard that these are the woods that inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s film, Princess Mononoke, I had to see it for myself.
- On New Year’s Day (also my birthday), I spent $7 USD to take a 15 minute ferry ride to a volcanic island called Sakurajima, where I spent an hour soaking in volcanic hot springs.
- Downtown Kagoshima is beautiful. All of the new years lights were still up, so it was very nice to see- very small but very well kept. From the ports to the main shopping and nightlife avenues, it was a pleasure to walk around this small town.
Highlights: Hiking up a mountain, exploring my own path and literally stumbling out onto a rock beach on Yakushima; Soaking with 50 other Japanese men in my birthday suit, fittingly enough; Seeing a plume of smoke coming out of Sakurajima at sunrise – a reminder that yes, there is an active volcano >1 mile away.
Hiroshima – January 3rd – January 4th
I took the Shinkansen train back up to Hiroshima on the third. I wanted to see for myself the city that was nearly wiped off the map on August 6th, 1944. Hiroshima has a peaceful feel to it – the city’s layout is very simple, and the peace park where you can see the nuclear disarmament flame, memorials to WWII victims and children killed by the blast, as well as the stunningly bleak remnants of the “A-Bomb dome,” which was left standing despite being only 150 meters from the epicenter of the blast.
- Outside of the WWII-related sights, I saw and enjoyed Hiroshima castle (first picture in this post.) The central temple portion was absolutely mobbed because of the new year, so I visited the encampments and the castle tower, which offers a history museum and sweeping views of the city.
- Hiroshima nightlife: surprisingly great. While not as big as Tokyo or as pervasive as Osaka, the nightlife here was a tamer version of both. There are plenty of restaurants, bars and nightclubs that seem to be bumpin’ at all hours of the night.
Highlights: Ground Zero and the A-bomb dome; The Hiroshima castle tower; Sake and Whiskey tasting at the Ana Crowne Plaza Hotel’s rooftop bar.
Tokyo (part 2) – January 4th – January 6th
After 10 days of exploring new cities, it was nevertheless strange to have a sensation of familiarity as I returned to Tokyo. At this point I was definitely touristed out – plus I had lots of yen to blow and time to kill. Consequently, I mostly shopped, drank and ate to my heart’s content. I found a secondhand clothing store; I visited Akibahara, the “electronics city,” where I found an 8 gig thumbdrive for ~$7 USD; I even caved in and visited a coin arcade, where I blew nearly $50 USD trying to get a small figurine.
All in all, an amazing trip. I will definitely return in the next few years, probably in a warmer season, to see the northern half of the country and fill in some of the things I missed this time around.